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I’m not the best volunteer on the planet, but what I lack in skill is made up for with eagerness and reliability. At least,I hope so.

If I sign up to lend a helping hand, my hands will be there, ready to work as long as they are needed.

When we lived in North Carolina, I showed up every Monday morning to work at the thrift shop on Marine Corps Air Base Cherry Point.

On my first day, someone asked me to arrange the uniform pants and blue jeans on hangers. I did it wrong. The very patient volunteer working with me kept showing me the “right” way to hang pants, all to no avail.

I was reassigned before the day was over. The following week, I was reassigned again. This kept happening until I finally landed in what became “my” area of expertise, the toy department.

All I had to do was pretend I was back in our living room, sorting through which toys could stay and which were “too far gone” and belonged in the trash. The only difference between going through thrift shop toys and those at home was the number of dolls I worked/played with at the thrift shop.

My next effort to give something back to my community got under way soon after we arrived in Carlisle, Penn. With all three boys in school for the first time, I decided to make up for the hours I hadn’t volunteered at schools in California, North Carolina and Texas.

I wanted to stick with a favorite subject, such as reading, and could just picture myself sitting in a rocking chair, reading to a group of smiling students. That little fantasy of mine has yet to come true.

First, I was given the dreaded task of making copies. Once a week, I trudged into the office to find out how many teachers needed how many copies done.

Then I went to the copying room and made as big of a mess as I could out of my simple assignments. Those humming, beeping, paper-spewing mechanical monsters chewed me up and spit me out like a wad of used gum.

Lucky for me, the school was being remodeled and those hideous monsters had to be relocated to the building’s lobby, right in front of the office.

Although I had stopped calling the machines bad names the moment they were moved, my fumbling attempts were still enough to distract teacher and students from the task of teaching and learning.

I was too happy to take it personally when the school found a new position for me … in my least favorite subject, math. For the rest of our time in Carlisle, I was one of a handful of volunteers who made sure the third- and fourth- graders could multiply and divide.

It was tedious, but allowed me to work hands-on with the children instead of two cold, conniving copy machines.

Now that we are in Springfield, Va., I am volunteering in art class and absolutely loving it. The students range in age from first-graders to sixth-graders and bring so much energy to the classroom they can barely sit still while the teacher explains the lesson.

Part of my job is to make sure the students devote that energy into working on their masterpieces rather than socializing with friends.

A surprising result of my increased time spent volunteering at the elementary school is a new appreciation of my free time. And my respect for teachers has increased even more than ever.

Of course, my favorites are still the ones who don’t give much homework.

A mother of three boys, Pam Zich has moved eight times in 16 years of marriage to her Marine Corps husband. They have been stationed in various locations, including Okinawa, California, Texas and their current home in Springfield, Va. E-mail her at homefront@stripes.osd.mil or find the Zichs online at www.lifeonthehomefront.com.

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